Fly Me to the Moon

There’s a good reason that the Corvette legacy goes back almost seventy years. And that the eighth generation of the car is rolling off the production line these days. It has something to do with astronauts. Among other things.
Text Wiebke Brauer
Photo Cadillac & Chevrolet

It has always been there. Well, maybe not always, but at least at the most crucial points in the life of an auto aficionado. We’re talking about the Corvette. Its history spans almost seventy years and eight generations – let’s see another car top that! Objectively speaking, the Corvette is one of the longest-running model designations in the automotive industry.

Then there’s the purely subjective aspect. Like the first time you heard “Little Red Corvette” playing on the radio and first became aware of a musician called Prince. And of the car he was singing about. That must have been in the early eighties. Later we learned that Prince had never actually owned a red Corvette. Which, given his rather odd taste in cars, was perhaps not surprising. His collection included, among other things, an astonishingly ugly purple 1999 Plymouth Prowler. But getting back to personal moments: A few years later, the Corvette enticed people to turn on their TVs to watch a series called Stingray. The mysterious protagonist, played by Nick Mancuso, didn’t really have a name or a past, but that didn’t matter. More important was the black 1965 Corvette C2 Sting Ray he drove. Some people preferred Knight Rider, but the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am clearly lacks the same grace as the Corvette. Besides, a talking car is just plain ridiculous. The Corvette, on the other hand, let the design do all the talking. With its elongated front end and sharply curved fenders, it was as seriously elegant as it was aggressive.

Some people preferred Knight Rider, but a talking car is just plain ridiculous. The Corvette, on the other hand, lets the design do all the talking.

But let’s turn the wheel of time back a little further and look at the beginnings of the Corvette. In September 1951 Harley Earl, chief stylist at General Motors, was attending an automobile race at Watkins Glen. As the story goes, it was on this day that he first laid eyes on the Jaguar XK120, considered the benchmark for sports cars at the time. We don’t know if this really was the moment that he decided to develop a new sports car himself. What we do know is that Chevrolet presented the first Corvette at the GM Motorama in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel on January 17, 1953. According to legend, the car got its name because someone had been leafing through a dictionary and came across the word “corvette” – though we can’t verify that for sure. Even the exact person responsible for the design is a matter of debate.

Possible candidates are Harley Earl, the design chief, Bob McLean, his stylist, and Carl Heinz Renner, a young designer who had emigrated from Germany to Detroit with his family as a child and who had previously worked as an animator for Walt Disney. The first Corvettes rolled off the assembly line on June 30, 1953. The initial production run was modest, with only a small series of about three hundred cars made during the first year – perhaps due to assembly problems and the low capacity of the plant in Flint, Michigan. What critics of the C1 like to ignore is the lightweight plastic body, which was a real innovation. The recipe was simple and strikingly successful: lots of engine, just two seats. And that hasn’t changed to this day. The first Corvette hit 100 km/h in an incredible eleven seconds.

The history of the Corvette took a major turn in June 1953 when GM hired racing enthusiast Zora Arkus-Duntov as staff engineer. In 1955 he took out the original six-cylinder engine and put in a small-block V8 with 4.3 liters of displacement and 195 horses of power; a three-speed manual transmission was offered as an option. Over the next few years, the model underwent both technical as well as visual changes, the tail fins were trimmed, the number of front headlights was increased from two to four, a four-speed manual transmission became available, seat belts were introduced and a removable roof panel was added. The second generation of the Corvette was launched in 1963. The famous split rear window was only available in the first model year. It was later removed because the configuration proved to be too impractical. We could go on to talk about the introduction of the Big-Block V8 in 1965, which delivered 425 hp, or the Chevy Corvette C3 that was produced from 1968 to 1982. We could go into the next forty years and the following model generations, but then we wouldn’t have enough space to write about that beautiful moment when a group of NASA astronauts raced each other across the beach in their Corvettes.

It all began with Alan Shepard. The military test pilot and future astronaut was a big Corvette fan. He bought his first one from his father-in-law in 1954, followed by a 1957 model of which he said that it drove “like a bat out of hell”. He even managed to get clearance from the tower at Langley Air Force Base to race his Corvette down the runway at over a hundred miles per hour to show off just how bat-out-of-hellish fast the car was. Shepard was friendly with Zora Arkus-Duntov, and after he became the first American in space, on May 5, 1961, the GM engineer convinced the company to give the astronaut a brand-new 1962 Corvette as a gift.

Astronaut Alan Shepard said of his Corvette that it drove “like a bat out of hell”.

That in itself was pretty good for publicity, but it was Jim Rathmann, a Florida GM dealer and former Indianapolis 500 winner, who recognized the real marketing value of astronauts driving Corvettes. Rathmann came up with the idea of the famous Dollar Car program that let Mercury astronauts lease the latest model for one dollar a year. They could then keep the car at a bargain price – though most of them rarely did (we’ll get to that in a moment). The promotional impact was enormous, and Rathmann had little trouble selling a Corvette that had once belonged to an astronaut. A former NASA employee recalls: “The parking lot was full of Corvettes. Looked like a Chevy dealer almost.”

our of the seven Mercury astronauts – Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton – accepted Rathmann’s offer and regularly staged races with their Corvettes on the beach near Cape Canaveral. The cars didn’t always stay in one piece, but that’s what Jim Rathmann was for. NASA simulator instructor Francis E. Hughes later commented: “They would get a new car every six months, as soon as the ashtrays were full or whatever, then that was it, they would turn them in.” The leasing program was discontinued in 1971, probably due to public pressure. But the photos of the astronauts with their Corvettes are now an integral part of American pop culture. The movie Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell, featured two Corvettes, and the opening scene of the 2009 reboot of Star Trek depicts a twelve-year-old James T. Kirk behind the wheel of a 1965 Corvette Sting Ray. Since the scene is supposed to take place in the year 2245, the car would be 280 years old at the time.

The astronaut leasing program was discontinued in 1971. But the photos of them with their Corvettes are now an integral part of American pop culture.

And then there’s that wonderful 2019 episode from the motoring television series The Grand Tour, where James May gets all emotional driving the beautifully preserved 1963 Corvette that had once belonged to Neil Armstrong. May can hardly believe that he’s sitting behind the wheel of a car driven by the man who uttered the famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It’s a truly moving thing to see.

A good way to finish might be with an excerpt from a road test report written by Belgian racing driver and motoring journalist Paul Frère that appeared in German automobile magazine auto motor und sport in 1963, because his words testify to the Corvette’s glorious history and its timeless appeal: “If anyone still doubted whether the big American carmakers knew what a real sports car was, or if they were interested in building one, they’ve certainly learned their lesson.”

Corvette Stingray Swiss Edition

The eighth generation of the Corvette is the first to feature a mid-engine design – a radical revolution for the American legend. The new 6.2-liter LT2 Small-Block V8 is the only naturally aspirated V8 engine in its class. Combined with the sport exhaust system of the Z51 Performance Package and a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, it produces 475 hp at 6,450 rpm and develops a maximum torque of 613 Nm at 4,500 rpm. The C8 Corvette completes the sprint from zero to 100 km/h in 3.5 seconds and reaches a top speed of 296 km/h.

Also new is the limited Swiss Edition. Reservations are now being accepted. Prospective buyers can choose between three coupes and three convertibles as well as six color and interior combinations. All Swiss Editions offer a comprehensive range of features, including the Z51 Performance Package and numerous options such as Magnetic Ride Control, Front Lift with memory function and GT2 bucket seats at no extra charge. If you want to test drive the new model, the largest Corvette event in Europe is taking place on August 28 at Hotel Meilenstein in Langenthal. Alternatively, you could also make an appointment with the Cadillac/Chevrolet showroom in Volketswil.

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